Halloween, Allhallowtide and Samhain: A spook-tacular time of year!

Kids in costumes in a row, smiling

Photo courtesy of Shaw Air Force Base

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31 and WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 1 and THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2:

Gather ‘round for spooky stories, ancient tales, age-old customs and plenty of apples and candy: it’s Halloween!

Rooted deeply in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin and ancestors are held close. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids!

Did you know? Samhain began in the oral traditions of Irish mythology; it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that visiting Christian monks began penning some of the tales.

As Western cultural influences spread worldwide, too, Halloween has steadily been gaining worldwide popularity—even in countries as far from North America as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Western images of witches, black cats and trick-or-treating now have circled the planet. Halloween slowly picked up speed and now is observed as far from the Celtic homeland as Asia and Africa. In some countries, bonfires and fireworks are common additions to nighttime trick-or-treating.

SAMHAIN: AN ANCIENT FESTIVAL REVIVED

Raven of black in shadow against orange moon

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

Did you know? In Gaelic Ireland, Guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain,

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

ALLHALLOWTIDE: THE CHRISTIAN TRIDUUM OF HALLOWEEN

The triduum of Halloween, “Allhallowtide” recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God. Note: While Catholics, Anglicans and many other denominations still have an “All Souls Day” on their liturgical calendars, many Protestant and evangelical churches have abandoned this traditional three-day cycle.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS: Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

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Autumnal equinox, Mabon: Welcome, fall!

Trees of autumn shades in fall

Photo by Paul Bica, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: Sharp scents of cinnamon and clove, met with the sweet taste of apple cider, marks autumn, and today, astrological events signal the autumnal equinox. Equinox, a celestial event, occurs twice per year and is so named because the length of day and night are (almost exactly) equal—after which, the number of hours of sunlight each day will wane until the winter solstice. For Pagans and Wiccans in the Northern Hemisphere, this time of year is known as Mabon, during which the gifts of the harvest are recognized and a type of Thanksgiving is celebrated. Mabon is also a time to seek blessings for the approaching winter months.

Did you know? The equinox phenomenon can occur on any planet with a significant tilt to its rotational axis, such as Saturn.

THE SIGHTS AND SMELLS (AND TASTES) OF AUTUMN

Take a walk through the woods, while enjoying the bold colors of autumn; make a horn of plenty that will grace the home through the season.

Looking for a DIY project for autumn? For centuries, people have been making apple dolls and corn dollies at harvest time. Learn how to make applehead dolls and corn dollies, with tutorials from Mother Earth News.

In search of fall recipes? First, check out Bobbie Lewis’s Mabon column, complete with a delicious recipe for apple cake. Want more? You’ll find other options at AllRecipes, Food Network, Taste of Home and Epicurious.

Love the smells of autumn? Bring the scents home with a make-it-yourself scented pinecone wreath.

MABON: THE SECOND HARVEST FESTIVAL

Pagans and Wiccans offer cider, wines and warming herbs and spices to gods and goddesses, while Druids call this time Mea’n Fo’mhair, honoring the God of the Forest. Wiccans celebrate the Mabon with altars, decorating them with pinecones, gourds, corn, apples and other autumn elements.

A time of mysteries, Wiccans recognize the aging of the goddess and visit ancestors’ graves, decorating them with leaves, acorns and other elements of fall. Tables are covered in feasts of breads, root vegetables and apple cider, as scents of cinnamon and nutmeg fill the air. Families gather, and preparations are made for the coming winter months.

For Pagans and Wiccans, Mabon is the second harvest festival; Lughnassadh precedes it, and Samhain will come later. Feasts are prepared, and individuals look to the dark of winter—a time of rest. Autumn’s abundance of harvest foods, combined with a shift to cooler temperatures, has long made it a popular time to reflect, renew and gather.

 

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Lammas, Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans, more welcome harvest season

Loaves of bread, various sizes and shapes

Photo courtesy of Pexels

TUESDAY, AUGUST 1: As July breaks into August and grains turn golden in the fields, Christians, Pagans and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland mark the feast of Lammas. An ancient festival of the wheat harvest, Lammas—or Lughnasadh—has long been called “the feast of first fruits.” In England and in some English-speaking countries, August 1 is “Lammas Day”; historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to the church for a blessing.

Did you know? The Anglo-Saxon version of Lammas, or “loaf-mass,” refers to the practice of bringing a loaf of freshly baked bread to one’s local church for blessing.

It is the joyful simplicity of gratitude for the change in seasons—from a season of planting to a season of harvest—that marks today’s occasion. Lughnasadh customs were commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair.

Morris dancing on green grass

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

In the Neopagan and Wiccan faiths, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbats and is the first of three harvest festivals. Ancient Celtic myth describes a god of sun, of light and brightness: He is Lugh, the deity for whom Lughnasadh is named. Ever mirthful, Lugh is honored alongside his foster mother, Tailtiu, who is said to be responsible for introducing agriculture to Ireland. The story of Lughnasadh is one of the cycle of life, of the harvesting of grains and crops, and of one season’s fruits dropping seeds for the next. Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries.

IN THE NEWS: 2017 EUROPEAN LAMMAS FESTS

Residents and visitors of Eastbourne, England marked Lammas this year with a two-day festival flanked with traditional Lammas Morris dancers, a parade, food and crafts, storytellers and a special-edition Lammas Ale. (Read more in the Eastbourne Herald.)

Watch a video of traditional Morris dancing, in Oxford, at this YouTube link.

In Keighley, baker and baking columnist Mike Armstrong will demonstrate breadmaking and talk about Lammas on August 1. Armstrong will give his bread-making demonstration in a local historic kitchen. (Learn more here.)

Interested in making a Lammas loaf? Try this recipe, from Recipes for a Pagan Soul:

4 cups all purpose/bread flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup raisins
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Stir flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and raisins together. Separately, fork-blend eggs and buttermilk, then add to dry ingredients. Stir until sticky batter is formed. Scrape batter onto a well-floured surface and knead lightly. Shape batter into a ball, then place in a round, non-stick casserole dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake uncovered in preheated 350-degree oven for about 1-1/4 hours.

Wait 10-15 minutes before attempting to remove bread from casserole, then cool on wire rack. If desired, cut loaf into quarters and then slice thinly.

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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan

Litha, Solstice and Midsummer: Celebrate the peak of summer

Group gathering outside in summer, blue skies, raising pole cross Swedish

Erecting a maypole at a Midsummer celebration in Sweden, 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21 through SATURDAY, JUNE 24: Seaside picnics, Midsummer parties and bonfires abound at the summer solstice—and, across the Northern Hemisphere, June 21 is the “longest day of the year,” this year. Astronomically, the summer solstice occurs when the tilt of Earth’s semi-axis in the northern hemisphere is most inclined toward the sun; thus, inhabitants of the north experience more hours and minutes of daylight today than on any other day of the year. In many Scandinavian countries, this time of year is celebrated as Midsummer—which includes Midsummer’s Eve and then Midsummer—and it is celebrated with an entire day’s worth of outdoor activities for citizens young and old. Wiccans and Pagans may observe Litha, a holiday of gratitude for light and life.

OUTDOOR DANCING, FLOWER CROWNS & SMORGASBORD

In Scandinavian countries, the longest day of the year is one of the most cherished holidays of the year. Affectionately termed Midsummer, many spend the day outdoors with an extravagant smorgasbord lunch, games for the entire community, time at the beach, dancing and bonfires. (In a recent article on the festival, AFAR calls Sweden’s Midsummer “straight out of a fairytale.”) Whether the long, dark Scandinavian winters are the reason for Midsummer exhilaration or it’s something else altogether, this holiday is unrivaled in many countries of the world.

Bowl of fresh strawberries amid green plants, outdoors

Strawberries are a staple on many Midsummer tables. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Flower crowns are uber popular beyond Europe, and this ancient accessory for Midsummer fetes is as easy as gathering a few favorite flowers and basic craft materials. (Some stores sell simple flower circlets, too.) For a tutorial on how to create a unique, chic one, check out Lauren Conrad.com. Got real flowers? Check out this YouTube video on how to make a crown using fresh components.

The Midsummer menu is as dear to Scandinavians as the Christmas goose or ham is to celebrants of the winter holiday, and fresh strawberries take center stage in Midsummer cakes and shortcakes. (Find more info at the official website of Sweden.) Other traditional foods include the season’s first potatoes, made with dill and butter; a roast; herring or other types of fish and seafood; hard-boiled eggs and summer cabbage. For recipes and ideas on how to spend the longest day of the year, check out Bon Appetit or the UK’s The Independent.

Did you know? Though harvest is not in full swing yet, many wild herbs are mature for picking and, thus, Midsummer is known as “Gathering Day” in Wales and in other various regions. Herbs, gathered most often for medicinal qualities, are gathered and dried for later use.

LITHA: A TRIBUTE TO LIGHT AND LIFE

Adherents of Wicca and Paganism look to the Sun God on the summer solstice, noting the full abundance of nature at the point of mid-summer. (Note: Some adherents celebrate on June 25, the fixed calendar date that is known as “Old Litha.”)

Traditionally, fresh fruits and vegetables are the main course at shared meals, and bonfires are lit to pay homage to the full strength of the sun. At Stonehenge, the heelstone marks the midsummer sunrise as viewed from the center of the stone circle.

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Beltane: Welcome summer the ancient Celtic way

Young girls in fancy matching dresses dance around a Maypole with ribbons in their hands, others dance while crowd looks on

Children in Wiltshire dance around a Maypole, an integral part of ancient Beltane celebrations. Photo by Anguskirk, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 1: An ancient Gaelic festival ushering in the joy of summer blossoms across Ireland and Scotland, parts of Europe and in Wiccan and Pagan communities worldwide, as Beltane. (In the Southern Hemisphere, Wiccans and Pagans mark Samhain.)

Enormous bonfires light a night sky that paints the backdrop for elaborate costumes, reenactments, dancing, fire-jumping and a revival of ancient rituals. Edinburgh now draws tens of thousands of attendees annually for its Beltane Fire Festival, which boasts hundreds of volunteers and performers; in some areas of Scotland and Ireland, remnants of old Beltane customs still remain. Halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, Beltane has always ranked among the most significant of pagan festivals.

As usual, some of the most interesting Beltane headlines are coming from Scotland. This year, for example, the Herald and other Scottish news sources are reporting on a special “family day” program that’s been added to the huge Edinburgh festival.

BELTANE: FLOWERS, BONFIRES AND A MAYPOLE DANCE

The earliest Irish literature mentions Beltane, and for the pastoral Celts this festival marked a key time of year. In daylight hours, cattle were adorned in flowers and driven to summer pastures; at nighttime, people and cattle walked or leapt between bonfires in a cleansing and protective ritual. During this sacred time of year, early pagan customs were meant to protect crops, cattle and people from disease and other forces of nature. (Wikipedia has details.) A home’s doors and windows were decorated with May flowers, and holy wells were visited. The morning dew of Beltane was believed to hold unique qualities that conserved youthfulness and beauty. Candles and hearth fires that had been put out on Beltane Eve were re-lit with the Beltane bonfire.

Dark, nighttime, outdoors, crowds in front of building with pillars holding enormous bonfires

The Beltane Fire Festival at Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Samhain commemorates the dark half of the year, Beltane celebrates the light half of the year. New life springs forth, the sun returns in full strength and energy is abundant. In centuries past, both Beltane and Samhain were regarded as days of “no time”—that is, when veils between this world and the other world are thinnest. With this belief, pagans would protect themselves and their homes from spirits and mischievous faeries with rituals and natural objects, such as rowan branches, on the outside of their homes. Dancing would commence throughout the countryside and, following a promiscuous night in the woods, young people would gather in the morning to weave the ribbons of the Maypole. Feasts ensued, which were often accompanied by athletic tournaments, costumed performances, an elected king and queen and the decoration of flower wreaths and garlands.

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Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc: Feasts, festivals anticipate spring

Men in black cloaks, suits and hats, one holding a groundhog, gathering to look at a small paper scroll

Punxsutawney Phil and other Groundhog Day participants at Gobbler’s Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, but woodland creatures and coming-of-spring myths have little to do with the Christian feast that falls one day later: It’s the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known better as Candlemas.

No matter which holiday you’re celebrating, though, do so with the unifying themes for these first two days of February: renewal and hope. The first days of February bring new beginnings, and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring. (And, this year, you can even raise a glass to Groundhog Day! That’s right—Punxsutawney Phil, the “official” groundhog of Groundhog Day, now has his own namesake “Philsner”—er, pilsner.)

CANDLEMAS: CANDLES, COINS AND BELLS

The feast of Candlemas focuses on the Gospel of Luke, which describes Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the Temple, Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future held tragic events for her young son.

Ice cream and chocolate drizzle on top of a crepe

Crepes are common fare across Europe for Candlemas, and the dairy products that often top them are symbolic foods for Imbolc. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served, often at a party thrown by the person who found the baby Jesus trinket in an Epiphany King Cake. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as Snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today. (Just don’t bring those Snowdrops inside before the feast of Candlemas, because that’s considered bad luck!)

IMBOLC: SPRING, WOODLAND ANIMALS AND BRIGHID

On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere usher in February with the centuries-old Gaelic festival of Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, marking the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. (Get a step-by-step, DIY version of Brighid crosses here.) After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

Did you know? The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings.

Legend has it that on Imbolc, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring. Snakes and badgers begin emerging from the earth to “test the weather” (thus, the beginning of modern Groundhog Day traditions.) In Wicca, Imbolc is a women’s festival, in honor of Brighid.

GROUNDHOG DAY: SEASONAL PREDICTIONS AND GOOD OL’ PHIL

On February 2, many of us ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

What started as an ancient pagan festival’s legends on woodland animals “testing the weather” has slowly morphed into a national phenomenon in the United States. Groundhog Day, spurred by German immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries who brought groundhog traditions with them to America, gave birth to “Punxsutawney Phil” and the array of groundhog-related events that fill lodges and streets in Pennsylvania in the first days of February each year. Annually, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day, where “Phil” is regarded as the “one and only” weather predictor for the day. In 2017, Phil will even be the namesake of a beer bottled in his honor: Punxsutawney Philsner, which is, according to handlers, already proving wildly successful. (Read more here.)

Getting it straight: Tradition tells that if a groundhog sees his shadow in sunlight, he will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter; if he sees no shadow, he will emerge, and an early spring is in the forecast.

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Winter solstice and Yule: Grab a warm drink, sit by the fire & enjoy winter’s peace

Glass of drink and cinnamon stick on table by fire in fireplace

Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21: The pale winter sun’s waning rays give way to the longest night of the year, on today’s winter solstice—known also as Yule, or midwinter. One of the oldest celebrations of winter, Yule conjures visions of steaming cinnamon wassail, a crackling fireplace and the serenity of a blanket of snow. Despite the darkness and bitter cold, Yule is a time of joy: While enjoying the tranquility of midwinter, Pagans, Wiccans and many world citizens welcome the reemerging sun. Winter solstice marks a turning point when days begin, once again, to lengthen, and nights to shorten.

Wherever you live—and as long as men and women have walked the earth—the solstices have been marked as auspicious turning points in the calendar. For our Northern readers, this is the winter solstice. Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts, giving thanks for the “rebirth of the sun” and the reversal from increasing darkness to increasing light. Ancient Germanic peoples observed Yule; ancient Romans held Saturnalia, Brumalia and other festivals for the sun with food, gift-giving, gambling and often ludicrous behavior. Today, Pagans and Wiccans gather for Yule festivities: feasting and the lighting of the celebrated Yule log, which will smolder for 12 days.

Want recipes? Bake a tasty version of a Yule log with recipes from Food Network, Taste of Home and Martha Stewart. Sit back, grab a hot drink and relax in the serenity of winter.

Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule,” and during Yuletide—which lasted approximately two months—many participants paid tribute to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky) and the god Odin (the leader of the Wild Hunt). Of course, this depended on where you lived in Europe at that time. Traditionally, enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule. So merry was the atmosphere in these activities, in fact, that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods.

WINTER: FROM MACHU PICCU TO DONGZHI

Pot of wassail with orange slices floating in it, steaming on a stovetop

Wassail cider cooks on a stovetop. Photo courtesy of Flickr

Solstice traditions have many names around the world: Inti Raymi in the Incan Empire in honor of the sun god Inti, and Soyalangwul for the Zuni and the Hopi. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.

YULE: EMBRACE THE CHILL

Winter got you down? Recharge with some all-natural ideas from the Huffington Post, such as enjoying the beauty of firelight or relaxing to some Classical music. In years past, pagans “wassailed” their fields with cider drinks—but a tasty wassail is great for sipping! (Find a recipe here. For an alcoholic version, check out the New York Times.)

Get in touch with nature by decorating your home with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; for a warm scent, make a pomander by decorating oranges with cloves (get instructions from Martha Stewart), noting the orange’s resemblance to the sun.

Feast dishes like Shortest Day Ham Loaf, Brighter Day Cheese Ball, Solstice Surprise Salad and Roasted Lamb Feast for a (Sun) King are at Wicca.com.

Instructions for a Yule ritual with candles and blessings is available at this UK site.

Interested in Yule songs? How about a Yule altar? Get an altar how-to, learn Yule songs for kids, access a Yule playlist, find suggestions of things to hang on a Pagan tree and more at PaganWiccan.about.com.

 

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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan